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What Can Professional Tennis Teach us About Workplace Wellness?


There are two popular narratives we love to tell in our society. 1. We care deeply about mental health and seek to support those struggling. 2. People are responsible for their own health and well-being as demonstrated by their resilience and determination. What happens when people take responsibility for their health and well-being by setting a boundary with their employer when that employer has stated that they care deeply about mental health and seek to support those struggling?

Take, for instance, the news about Japanese tennis sensation, Naomi Osaka withdrawing from the French Open, citing struggles with anxiety and depression. It all started when Naomi stated she would not attend a post-match press conference. Her intention was to avoid press obligations due to the lack of protection for athletes and their mental health and her own struggles. Her employer then fined and threatened her with expulsion for her action. Naomi decided to withdraw from the tournament. One supporter, mental health-focused app company Calm, offered to pay the fines she was charged which she requested be donated to a French organization that aims to support the mental health of young people and children through sport.

So, let’s break this down. Naomi Osaka is an employee with specific rules and requirements for her job within her industry – similar to lawyers, manufacturers, or doctors to name a few. When a specific aspect of her job became detrimental to her health and safety, she set a clear and specific boundary. Then she faced disciplinary action. This seems on par with most work agreements. It is our conventional way of dealing with the relationship between employee and employer. If someone cannot or will not do the job they were hired to do, we respond by placing them on a performance improvement plan, withholding raises or bonuses, or even removing them from the job.

When we say we care about our workforce and we want to treat people with dignity and respect, what would it look like to respond differently? The officials who lead the French Open stated they tried to reach out to Naomi several times prior to the fine being administered, adding that they reached out to warn her of the fines. Imagine if they had reached out in a concerned way, rather than with intentions of warning her. What if they could have said, “We would like to know more about your desire to avoid press conferences. We have a set of rules that apply to all athletes, but perhaps there is an opportunity to learn and grow from this experience to create a better future for the sport and to model leadership for all athletes.”

That kind of response comes when an employer cares about their employees and is comfortable with growth and leadership. These employers understand that the health and well-being of employees is as much the organization’s responsibility as it is the individuals. As employers, when companies seek to support mental health, they offer programs such as traditional EAP, training, or purchase enterprise apps for employees. This is a great start, but it’s not the end. These offerings, once purchased, pass the mental health responsibility to the employee. These interventions are incomplete, leaving no space for employees to discuss how the operations of the organization impact mental health.

For too long, our society has over-functioned and exploited the resilience of the individual, when in reality we live in communal systems, of which the workplace is one. Behavioral science tells us that the best workplaces are needs-supportive of their people. That requires us to offer tools like mental health programs and access to therapists, and it also requires that we create a workplace where employees are safe to state ways in which the system might need some improvement to better support the individual.

Mental health is nothing new to the vocabulary of those who work in employee well-being, but it is something we are beginning to hear more frequently and ubiquitously. When someone dies from suicide, our corporate and personal social media feeds fill up with open invitations for those struggling to reach out if they are in need. And yet, when Naomi Osaka set a boundary to protect her mental health, the media exposed what really occurs when someone seeks to protect his or her mental well-being.

Naomi’s experience helps bring awareness to the topic of mental health. It exposes the unspoken fractures that prevent someone from speaking up when they are struggling. However, we can learn and grow from these experiences. As we outlined above, we believe this is where real leadership lies – in our ability to be realistic about the needs of others, our missteps, and a willingness to do better next time. Every human being has mental health and it affects our everyday lives, including work. How will you activate your leadership to cultivate meaningful change?